In Defense of Beauty

I am average looking.

I just want to put that out there. I’m neither beautiful nor ugly. I’m somewhere in the middle.

This is, it seems, a controversial thing to say. “You are beautiful,” positive thinking friends will say. “We are all beautiful.”

I’m sorry to rain on your parade but we are not all beautiful. You are basically average and so am I. And that is fine. We may be tremendously attractive in our own ways, but that is a different question. If the word “beautiful” means extraordinarily nice to look at, then we can’t all be it. Only a special genetically-blessed few can be.

Isn’t it nice that they are out there? They are pleasing to see.

You can not appreciate beauty if you feel threatened by it.

For some time American women, and to a lesser extent, men, have been made to feel threatened by images of beautiful people. We have been trained to see beautiful fashion models and actors as a commentary on our plainness. But why?

When exposed to a painting of a reclining nude in a museum, or a statue of Venus or Michelangelo’s David, we appreciate the physical beauty but we do not take it as a commentary on ourselves. We do not resent the artist for presenting an idealized physical form. We simply delight in its beauty.

We relate to media images of beautiful people in a different way. A recent article in the wonderful publication The Illusionist took Victoria’s Secret to task for Photoshopping models.  (As well they should.  We should question our standards of beauty and how advertisers manipulate those perceptions.)

The retailer manipulates their photos, they wrote, “in order to make their beauty even more impossible to achieve…”  (Emphasis mine.)

A documentary on body image, “America the Beautiful” quotes a high school principal who had concerns about one of her 12-year-old students being drawn into the world of high fashion modeling.

“Not only do we have pressure to look like a 20 year old,” she said, “Now we have pressure to look like a 12-year-old and that’s impossible.”

Our deeply held assumption is that we are not only meant to look, we are meant to look like the beauties we see in media. Who said that? Who told you that someone else’s beauty is something you should strive to “attain?” My guess is that they were trying to sell you something.

The problem is not that models are beautiful. It is not even that they are impossibly beautiful—extraordinarily young, skinny and photoshopped. It is only our relationship to the images that is unhealthy and dangerous.  The danger is in our unshakable belief that our beauty ideal is aspirational, that perfection is something we should always strive towards.

What marketing does that museums do not is to transform our natural appreciation of a beautiful form into a push to buy a product. A model is presented with a call to action—buy my make up, buy my jeans. Advertisers create the implicit promise that not only can this beauty be contemplated, it can be imitated. And it is easy to do so, just buy the jacket, the perfume, the deodorant, the car. If it is so easy to become beautiful, if all you have to do is buy a shampoo, then it really is a personal failing if you don’t make the effort.

The real problem is not that the physical form of the model is “unobtainable” by most of us, but that we think of beauty as a product, as something we should “obtain.” We tyrannize ourselves with the belief that we should possess anything we see that pleases us. “I see physical beauty, it pleases me, I should have it.”

That is a shame, not only because of the way it makes us feel about ourselves, but also because it robs us of the joy of simple aesthetic appreciation of rare physical beauty. We should celebrate the capricious twist of genetic fate that creates a Heidi Klum, and be grateful that it occasionally happens.

We listen to musical virtuosos, not a class room full of music students, even though the virtuoso level is “unobtainable” by most people. We like to watch professional athletes performing at a skill level that is “unobtainable” by most people. Most people will never “obtain” the level of a professional ballet dancer at ABT, but that is exactly why we go to watch. Appreciation of the extraordinary and rare is not unhealthy or destructive.

I find that much of what we do to counteract the ills of our consumer relationship to beauty operates in the same context and retains the same cultural assumptions. Rather than questioning the idea that we are all supposed to be physically beautiful we say “everyone is beautiful.”

But we don’t believe it, do we?

A 2009 study published in Psychological Science backs me up on this. When people get feedback that they believe is overly positive, they actually feel worse, not better. When people hear and affirmation they don’t believe, they adhere even more strongly to their original position.  (This is great for marketers, because when we feel we’re lacking in beauty, we dive in and buy more beauty products.)

If you tell your charming, smart, compassionate, sexy and profoundly appealing overweight friend that she is “beautiful” you run the risk of making her feel even more unattractive than she believes the culture is telling her she is.

Compliments carry much more weight when they are specific and true. “You are beautiful” is vague and rings hollow. “Your sense of humor is really attractive. You make everyone light up around you,” is much more effective and thoughtful.

The problem with telling every girl she is “beautiful” is that it does nothing to combat the assumption that it is most important that she be a beauty. We should not have to refer to intelligence as “beauty” or kindness as “beauty” to value them. (We generally don’t insist that men’s positive qualities all be labeled as “beauty.” You could say a man’s strength or intelligence is “beautiful” but it would be quite unusual.)

I prefer the word “attractive” to beautiful. Beauty unquestionably has a power to attract. But you can be very attractive without being traditionally “beautiful,” and when it comes down to it, being attractive is actually what we crave because we desire union with other people. We want to be drawn together. I want people to be drawn to me for what is extraordinary and unique about me. I want to be drawn to what is extraordinary and unique about you.

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